To the Tulou Great Wall

Guibi Lou - just an average tulou from Xinnan Village. Not "World Heritage", like Yanxiang Lou
-- (2012-03-03) -- Next: The home of the pomelo

After 2 nights in Gaotou Township's Chengqi Lou, I went farther west. In Huang Hanmin's "Fujian Tulou" I had seen a photo of the area that the local tourism promoters call "The Great Wall of Tulous": a chain of villages that mostly consist of tulou and similar adobe buildings, and present quite an imposing picture if viewed from a suitable view point.

Some weeks before, at an early planning stage, I saw that area with Google Maps satellite view almost as soon as I zoomed on the tulou region and started browsing; later, when I actually wanted to find it its exact location on the satellite photos, it took a bit of an effort, but eventually I did find an almost exact match of what the photo showed. The village are located in the valley of the Nanxi ("South Creek") south of Hukeng Town, roughly from Shijia Village in the south to Xin Nancun ("New South Village"; on Google Maps) in the north, and are almost as impressive on the satellite photos as on the photo in the book. So the area is sometimes referred to as the "Nanxi Great Wall of Tulou".

Getting to the "Great Wall" on the ground was easy enough: the new county road continues west from Gaotou to Hukeng, and from there, you take Provincial Highway 309 (S309) to the south. The highway runs along the western side of the Nanxi Valley, while the villages, connected by an old (very poor) road, sit in the valley to the east of the road. This very new highway sometimes made an almost surreal impression: it is a perfect new road with very few vehicles on it, and with only few - and quite poor - connections to the villages where the people are. It is as if the road has been built to serve the tourists and the transit traffic, neither of which are here yet (and the next day, I was to find out why), rather than the locals. However, I saw at least one connector bridge under construction, so hopefully it all will come with time.

Tulou ruins. Xipian Village.
Tulou ruins. Xinnan Village.
Tulou ruins. Yangduo Village.

Although my maps very quite unambiguous as to where the tulou villages were, apparently that wasn't as clear to everyone. At some point, a car with a family of tourists came from the south, the driver asking me - and then a more knowledgeable local farmer - "" (So where are the tulou?). That was somewhat discouraging, but I kept going, and after a few more kilometers, the first major tulou village, Xin Nancun, appeared. My maps mentioned that one of the World-Heritage-listed tulou, the Yanxiang Lou, was in the village, but looking from the highway I would have no idea which one it was: the village, stretched along both sides of the Nanxi Creek, had several impressive large round and square tulous, each of which certainly would deserve heritage listing. After a bit of riding and picture taking, I got to a square tulou posted as some kind of Hakka Lifestyles Exhibition; it had apparently been restored and maintained in a decent condition, but there wasn't actually much of an "exhibit" to be seen, beyond, of course, the building itself. The Yanxiang Lou turned out to be nearby as well. While posted with tourist information, it did not have any tickets vendors or tourist crowds, and certainly was pleasant to see.

In Xinnan Village (Xinnancun)
Inside Yanxiang Lou

As I went farther south along the tulou villages, I enjoyed the views and took pictures, but I wanted to find a high viewpoint similar to the one used by the photographer who took the photo in Huang Hanmin's book. I climbed a bit along one westbound trail, but it did not seem to provide any useful viewing opportunities. However, a bit later, near Nanjiang Village, a purpose-built winding road climbed a mountain on the western side of the valley, with a sign inviting tourists to visit an observation tower. So I did. You can drive or ride - well, push the bike, most likely - up the road, or you can walk up a shorter but steeper trail through the forest; I chose the latter. The view indeed was worth the climb. However, the tower was not located as far south as the view point of the photographers in the book; looking north, you'd only seen the northern half of what they got.

The deceased liked psychodelic colors...
Nanjiang Village, a section of the "Tulou Great Wall", seen from the observation tower
Nanjiang (center)Nanjiang (south)Shijia

Down on the highway, I kept south, passing another villages (Shijia), where slogans painted above the tulou entrances asked for "10,000 years for Chairman Mao", or at least for Mao Zedong's Thought. I felt I just have to stay for a night there, and try another photo-op chance tomorrow.

Shijia Village, Dongxing Lou

I could start my description of the place with "The time has stopped on the cobblestone streets of Shijia", except that there were really no streets there: a cobblestone square between several tulous, then a narrow, pedestrian- or moped-only alley to the next opening, and so one. As I said, the "modern" traffic, such as there was goes on the new highway S309 west of the village, and the old road (which is basically dirt road with some stones mixed in for a good measure) skirts the village from the east.

Shijia Village. The Cultural Revolution continues!

No wonder few tourists ever make it to Shijia. I did not expect to find any travel-related infrastructure there, but there was at least a grocery store there, and when I inquired, on the off chance, whether there is any kind of accommodation (''zhusu'') available in the village, the owner merely responded: "How many people?". As it turned out, he had some nearly empty rooms on the second floor of his, and did not mind renting them out to travelers - and feeding them, too - at a reasonable price. (To be honest, I don't know if he does it regularly, or I was the first person to ask, but if the latter, he certainly was able to think on his feet. I hope that with the new road, more people will come to Shijia and put some money into the pockets of the locals who are willing to rent rooms.)

In a sense, I wish I had a chance to stay in a tulou again, as I had in Gaoutou, but, really, I did not mind being in a fairly comfortable modern house again. And there was a tulou just across an alley...

Shijia Village, Yuqing Lou. I stayed across a street... "an alley" from it

(2012-03-04) The one-room grocery shop was, apparently, also a social club of sort for the owner's friends, who'd sip tea or play mah-jong there. I don't speak much Chinese, and the for the region's Hakka people Mandarin also must be a second language, but with a pen and paper we were able to communicate to some extent.
"Coming from Canada, you must know about Dr. X!" (I missed the name).
"Doctor? I am afraid I don't think I know any doctors... What's his name anyway... 白 Bai- 求 qiu- 思 si? No idea!"
"It's not 思 si, it's 恩 en".
白求恩 "Bai-qiu-en... Ah, Dr. Bethune, of course, the hero of the anti-fascist wars in Spain and in China!"
(Dr. Bethune, a Montreal surgeon, died in 1940 while treating Red Army's wounded soldiers during the war against Japanese invaders, and became well known after Mao Zedong himself wrote about him.)

"So you are out there to look at tulous?" A reasonable guess, indeed, as in Shijia you'd see a tulou or a few wherever you look. One of the hospitable grocer's mah-jong partners turned out to be a local history enthusiast. A grandson of a local master craftsman (Jiang Lin'en, 江林恩, a.k.a. Ah Man Shi 阿满师), he proudly showed his collection on books and magazine articles of the tulou country's lore, some of which he (Jiang Shengzhan 江生赞) wrote himself. This was certainly a lot more writing on this topic than I'll ever read in my life... Mr. Jiang kindly showed me around "his" tulou: Nan'an Lou, a rather unusual building, in that it's neither round nor rectangular, but rather D-shaped.

Shijia: not the best view

I spent a few hours in mid-day hiking in the hills southwest of Shijia, but could never find a position from which one could get a view exactly like the "Great Wall" photographers did. Either they had a helicopter and a day of an exceptionally good visibility, or they were able to climb a cell phone tower, or the fruit trees which block some of the best views now had not grown at that time yet. Most likely, of course, they simply knew the terrain a lot better than I did.

By mid-afternoon it was time to leave Shijia, if I was to get anywhere else before too late at night. There were several options I could pursue - go back to Hukeng, and then north or northwest toward Yongding or Longyan; backtrack from Hukeng to the east, toward Shuyang and Nanjing County to Zhangzhou; or choose the southern route to Zhangzhou, via Pinghe County. I chose the last option...

Next: The home of the pomelo






Seen on the stalls outside Muslim (apparently Uighur, rather than Hui) restaurants in Guangzhou (Guangdong) and Nanchang (Jiangxi). They sell for Y2 (about 30 cents), and tastes not too different from a good bagel. I suppose they are originally from Xinjiang - I wonder how they are properly called?


Jinmen (Kinmen) ferries

[Previois: Quanzhou as seen by its stone turtles] - 2012-02-26 - [Next: Hekeng Village]

A perennial topic of discussion on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree is the availability, or non-availability, of ferry service between Fujian's mainland and Jinmen (Kinmen) island - a small piece of Fujian Province of China - which is actually controlled by the Republic of China (Taiwan). Here's a current update, as of February 2012.

The terminal in Shijing

I was riding from Quanzhou to Xiamen, and the idea of taking the ferry from Shijing Town (石井镇) (near Quanzhou) to Jinmen, and then from Jinmen to Xiamen, was certainly appealing, as the ferries would eliminate some of the comparatively boring overland travel in this area. There is indeed a large ferry terminal in Shijing, and there are indeed ferries to Jinmen there. The first ferry leaves the mainland at 8:30 (you probably will want to be at the ferry at least 30 min in advance), and there are probably a couple more of them during the days, judging by the schedule I later saw in Jinmen. (There did not seem to be a schedule prominently posted in Shijing).

Shijing, in a sense, is wonderfully set up as a departure point: you can get there after an afternoon of sightseeing at the famous ancient Anping Bridge a few miles to the north (between Anhai 安海 and Shuitou 水头 towns; you really want to walk the entire length of the bridge, if you can!), and spend the night in town waiting for the morning ferry. The ride or drive from Shuitou to Shijing, along the new riverside road is quite pleasant; there is little traffic now, but there is apparently a lot of new development going on, mostly connected with the cross-straits trade.

While the quayside hotels in Shijing are on the luxury side (lots of "karaoke" places, according to signs), there are decent budget options in a quiet street just a block or two inland - in one of them, I had quite a decent room for just Y60. (In contrast, in Xiamen, I think, it's a much longer distance from either the Dongdu or Wutong ferry terminal to any of the budger hotel districts). Plenty of food choices too.

There is only one problem with the Shijing ferry: the Shijing to Jinmen ferry presently does NOT carry thrid-party natioinals (i.e., those not with a PRC or ROC passport). First I did not entirely believe that I had understood the ticket clerk's words correctly, but I checked with a uniformed immigration official, and she confirmed the situation. So for most of us foreign travelers this is not an option, but stay tuned... things may change - and I hope they will!

Inside the Dongdu Ferry Terminal (aka International Cruise Terminal), Xiamen

The second attempt, at Dongdu terminal (just north of downtown Xiamen), a couple days later, carried no surprises. Ferry service is pretty frequent (pretty much hourly all day, until 5 pm or thereabout), the ticket cost (the fare _+ mandatory "service charge") was Y150, facilities decent, and check-in smooth and quick. Sort of like going through an international airport, but without all the time-costly hassles that an airport involves.

On the Marco Polo

For obvious reasons, no national flags seem to be flown on the ferries.

There are both Xiamen-based and Jinmen-based ferries on this route, operating in a more or less alternating order. The Xiamen boat, the Marco Polo was certainly an "atmospheric" old vessel, passengers grabbing on railings and ropes as the little craft pitched, rolled, and yawed on its way between the two islands. The views are great... except that it's usually pretty foggy in Xiamen's waters, and in February it's still fairly cold, even though we're just a degree north of the Tropic of Cancer.

"Three People's Principles for One China". The first R.O.C. fortification.

After about an hour, a small island with a little fortification decorated with a 三民主义 (Three People's Principles of Sun Yat-sen) appeared, and perhaps another half an hour later it was the Shuitou Harbor in Jinmen. This is the harbor where all 3 mainland ferry lines (from Shijing, Dongdu, and Wutong (at the NE corner of Xiamen Island)) terminate. Don't miss the tourist information desk, with all kinds of great free maps - for both Jinmen and the "main island" of Taiwan, hotel information, etc.

At R.O.C. immigration at Jinmen they do ask about your intended destination - you had better put some address on the arrival country in advance. But as I had not bothered doing it, the official was satisfied enough with me putting my (mainland!) cell phone number instead. The customs do have those cute little dogs that sniff at everybody's luggage in search of contraband, fruit, or an occasional ham sandwich.

The next day I went back to Xiamen by a Xiamen-based ferry, the Star of Peace (和平之星), and the sleek fast new boat made the Marco Polo look like a rustbucket. On this fast new boat, you are not supposed to be outside of the main cabin during the sailing, and the ride was remarkably smooth - almost as if you were still on the terra firma. After a couple cups of tea I looked out and saw an island on the right. "Wonder if it's still the Lesser Jinmen", I thought. But no: there were skyscrapers seen behind it - it already was the Gulangyu!

The boat even had an (entirely empty) first-class cabin, also including small private cabins, on its second floor. I wonder who ever rides there: I did not see any first-class tickets advertised either at the Dongdu terminal or in Shuitou, but I guess the true VIPs don't need to buy tickets in person at the ticket desk...

Re-entering the mainland at Xiamen was as straightforward as as leaving. I may have been the only third-country national on this craft, and, seeing that I am spending too much time filling in my arrival card (figuring the address of my hotel, etc), an official just waived me through without bothering with the minutiae like this.

Taking a bicycle on either ferry was not an issue at all: while I did not see other bikes being carries, the terminal staff and the crew apparently weren't surprised. On both boats, once you are at the dock, or on the boat itself, with the bike, the crew will put it into the luggage area in the back of the boat, where some of the passengers carry quite large items (small cargo, really). There is no extra fee for the bike (or luggage in general). This is certainly a lot more civilized way to travel than by plane, that's for sure.

Schedules (from Jinmen to Xiamen's Dongdu and Wutong, and to Quanzhou). Fares in Taiwanese dollars, but really it's just 750 NT (around $25) all told.

Incidentally, in Jinmen some locals told me that there is apparently also a ferry from Fuzhou (Mawei, to be precise) to the Matsu (Mazu) islands - an even smaller enclave of the R.O.C.'s Province of Fuchien off the coast of P.R.C.'s Province of Fujian. That certainly would have been an even more exotic destination than Kinmen (Jinmen) - but I have no idea about that ferry's details, and in particular its availability to third-country nationals.

[Previois: Quanzhou as seen by its stone turtles] - 2012-02-26 - [Next: Hekeng Village]